Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Donald E. Westlake; End of It All

Ed here: This should've run a long time ago. Obviously. But it's still well worth reading.

Don Westlake, Amazing Writing Machine

On New Year’s Eve, 2008, a friend of mine was on his way to dinner with his wife. He never made it. He complained of not feeling well, sat down on a bench, and then collapsed, dead of a heart attack.

Don Westlake was a writing machine, turning out 100 novels under ten pseudonyms. He’s best known for the comic caper novels written under his own name and featuring an unintentionally funny criminal named John Dortmunder and for the hard-boiled Parker crime novels written by “Richard Stark.” He also wrote screenplays for one of my favorite fright-flicks, “The Stepfather,” and for “The Grifters, for which he was nominated for an Oscar.

In one room of his four-story home on Bleecker Street in Manhattan were floor-to-ceiling racks of books. I was amazed when he told me that every one was written by him; he had every edition of his works in hardcover and paperback, sometimes multiple copies, as well as copies in a score of foreign languages.

All of his books were written on a small manual typewriter that had gone out of production decades earlier. To keep it supplied with spare parts, he never missed a chance to buy the same model in antique stores and junk shops.

I knew him because we shared a couple of friends, novelists Martin Cruz Smith and mystery writer Joe Gores. Westlake and Gores once published novels that contained an identical chapter, and they did it without the knowledge of their publishers. That sense of fun made them both wonderful company.

For several years, Don Westlake wrote scripts for back-to-back "murder mystery weekends" at The Mohonk Mountain House, a rambling old hotel 80 miles north of Manhattan. Amateur actors, most of them writers he knew, put on playlets about a murder. Teams of hotel guests asked questions in an attempt to solve the crime. The players had to stick to fact-sheets provided by Westlake and avoid saying anything that contradicted the stories of the other characters.

At the end of the weekend, the teams dramatized the crime as they imagined it, and Westlake revealed his own solution. Prizes were given for accuracy and creativity. For the second weekend, the facts were altered enough to provide a new murderer.

In 1987, I was one of the actors along with David Morrell, Justin Scott, Alice Turner, Chris Newman, Brian Garfield, and Mrs. Otto Penzler. Between the two weekends my wife Cindy and I stayed with the Westlakes in Manhattan--it was one of the most enjoyable 10 days of my life. Abby and Don were amusing and upbeat people and perfect hosts.

The year we were at Mohonk, the murder was set in 1872 at the fictional Western town of Turnip Gulch. I played a drunken doctor named Homer Payne-Whitney. The guests had been told that my character's parents had been killed by Indians. When I was asked, "What Indians?" I was able to safely answer, "The Cleveland Indians."

Westlake, playing circuit-court judge Orner E. Plugge, questioned me in court. Before I could divulge crucial information, shots rang out from the balcony -- I was hit! I staggered around, then dropped to the floor and died after a few violent twitches. It was the pinnacle of my acting career.

While at the Westlake house, during the week between performances, I heard Don say that he never knew if the dishes in the dishwasher were dirty or clean. Weeks later in a gift shop, I found a magnetic dial with an arrow that pointed to "Clean" or "Dirty" and mailed it to him. He replied that it helped a lot because every morning Abby pinned it to her blouse so he would know how she was feeling.



THE END OF IT ALL and Other Stories

Ed Gorman

23 short stories from the pen of the master of horror and suspense, Ed Gorman. They represent his favorite chillers from a career spanning decades. It took 426 pages to hold them all there's not a word to spare.

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Todd Mason said...

And both of you contributed to XERO back when. Were you more of a friendly acquaintance of the Lupoffs? I imagine Westlake might've been.

Ed Gorman said...

I imagine Dick and Pat knew Don. A lot of writers hung in a few of the Village bookstores nack then.

Anonymous said...

That last sentence of the Westlake tribute made me literally laugh out loud.

Jeff P.

Rusty James said...

A fine tribute - 'tis always nice to remember friends by their unique humour.

Naomi Johnson said...

Thank you. My eyes are wet but I'm smiling, too.